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Animals of Red Rock Canyon: Praying mantis

Praying mantis preying on something at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Praying mantis preying on something at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Photo by Dolev Schreiber

Many Las Vegas natives have encountered the mysterious stick-like insect that magically appears in spring time and disappears again come early winter. But they do not know how fascinating the short life of this praying mantis actually is. This bug, with its triangular UFO-like head, is a carnivore, named for its front legs that are bent and held together as if in prayer. As it stands there and surveys its surroundings, it looks like a harmless presence with spiritual or mystical powers, just like its second name, mantis, or “prophet,” suggests. Little does its prey know how vicious this predator can be.

The praying mantis is divided into thousands of species throughout the world, only ten of which are native to the Southwest United States deserts. It has two large compound eyes that can detect light and movement and three simply eyes between them. It also has three pairs of legs, two pairs of wings, and only one ear, located on the underside of its belly, mainly used to detect the sound of bats, its worst enemy. When a bat attacks, a praying mantis, in mid-flight, can simply stop flapping its wings and drop out of reach, performing an impressive tuck-and-roll defensive technique.

Most remarkable within the world of insects is the praying mantis’ ability to turn its head 180 degrees to scan the surroundings. The constantly hungry and gluttonous insect preys on moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies, spiders, and even lizards, frogs, and hummingbirds. It captures its prey using its front legs with such quick reflexes the human eye cannot register it. These legs are equipped with spikes that hold its prey in place while the mantis devours it alive.

According to an article about the praying mantis in National Geographic, the insect can be so hungry it will even eat its own kind. And, as is common in other insects (see the tarantula, for instance), the female praying mantis may feast on its male partner immediately following, or sometimes during, mating. In the fall, the female will lay hundreds of eggs and cover them with a plaster-like substance for protection until they hatch in the spring and the cycle begins again.

Visit the giant fire-spitting structure of a praying mantis at the entrance to the Container Park in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada and check out more information about it and other southwest desert animals at the DesertUSA website.